The weather changes and bare trees aren’t the only signs that the holiday season is approaching. All around Ann Arbor, twinkling lights hang on trees and dachshunds with Santa hats and snowmen listening to iPods painted on store windows can be found for the viewing pleasure of those walking by. But not everyone knows who is responsible for the creation of this holiday cheer.
Window painter and ‘U’ alum John Copley has been braving the temperamental Michigan weather every holiday season for the past eight years to paint as many windows as possible. No matter the weather, he’s always out there.
“This is just something that’s kind of fun to do,” he said. “Despite it being cold.”
Copley has been working as an artist since graduating from the University’s art school in 1969. Eight years ago, he was hired by the Ann Arbor Main Street Area Association to dress up storefront windows during the holiday season and has been happily doing so ever since.
This year, roughly 30 venues have requested his services. In order to accommodate all the requests, Copley started working on them one-by-one every day since Nov. 2. To avoid any conflict when it rains, he saves the few venues with awnings or covers for rainy days and works on the others when the weather is more bearable.
Copley has worked on a diverse set of window displays this year. Blue Tractor, the Bank of Ann Arbor, Cherry Republic, Arcade Barbers and Conor O’Neill’s are just a few of the venues.
Some companies already have an idea for what design they would like on their windows, while others are more open to his ideas.
“I have a lot of experience in design, so I can come in and make suggestions to people,” Copely said. “I’m perfectly willing to do whatever they want, though, within reason.”
This allows Copley artistic freedom — excluding any religious symbols, as he prefers to emphasize the general spirit of the holidays over religion.
Additionally, the window paintings are meant to last through the winter, so the designs tend to be winter-based as opposed to holiday-themed. This means a passerby will see more snowmen and snowflakes than Santa hats and reindeer.
Copley tries to be as creative as possible to incorporate the spirit of the venue he’s painting for. When he chooses to do holiday-themed paintings, they tend to be more on the funny side with animated characters — like the smiling Christmas tree covered in beer labels at Connor O’Neill’s or grape vines at Vinology with ornaments hanging with phrases and symbols relating to the venue inside.
Copley also adds poetic phrases to windows when applicable, like the few lines from a Robert Frost poem he painted on the Jolly Pumpkin’s window.
But Copley is not the only one responsible for Ann Arbor’s holiday spirit. The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority works to make the glittering trees shine throughout the cold winter nights by providing the funds to maintain the twinkling lights.
Questions have arisen as to whether the city is responsible for promoting a primarily Christian holiday to its residents.
Rohen Shah, co-president of the Michigan Atheists Student Society, said he thinks everyone should be allowed the freedom to use whatever decorations they desire as long as they aren’t harmful to others.
Shah said he believes many Christians-turned-atheists still have a soft spot for all things Christmas and the universal feeling of kindness and giving.
“Even if you don’t believe in Jesus, you can still like Christmas stuff,” he said.
In Shah’s eyes, Christmas time and its associated decorations serve are symbols for joy, but he does draw a line: He said he would be bothered if someone came up to him and asked him to join them in celebrating the birth of Jesus through prayer. However, Christmas music and decorations don’t faze him in this way.
Copley has been the recipient of many good wishes from students as he proceeds with his work. The biggest complaint Copley receives is for starting too early in November.
“I get a lot of really nice compliments like, ‘It always feels like Christmas when I see you painting the windows,’ ” he said.
Maggie Ladd, director of the South University Area Association, said she feels that walking around the Ann Arbor streets during this time of year — namely the South University, State Street and Main Street areas — is a “magical” experience.
“Wouldn’t you feel that (magic) when it’s a cold winter’s night and the entire downtown is all lit up with twinkling lights?” she said.
Whether students are heading to a study session or simply taking a stroll around town, they should take a moment to let the view sink in and experience the magic firsthand.